Review of Caesar’s Messiah, by Joseph Atwill

Introduction

Caesar’s Messiah presents a tissue of preposterous theories. Fortunately, Robert M. Price has detangled Atwill’s theories and addressed them one by one in a review of the 2005 edition. Price uses the words “mad,” “ludicrous,” and “perverse and gratuitous interpretations of the text.” I read the entire Caesar’s Messiah (2011 revised edition) to check that Price was being fair. He was. Here, I endorse and incorporate Price’s review by reference.

Atwill does get a few things right, which I address here. Why? They may seduce the reader into giving Atwill’s entire scenario unwarranted credibility. Here I provide alternative explanations. I acknowledge that a key event in early Christianity did occur at the time of the Flavians. Then I explain that the New Testament was a Diaspora variation on Judean religion, and was just as normative as Pharisaism and militant messianism. (One does not need Atwill’s explanation that Christianity was the conspiratorial creation of Flavian apparatchiks.) I accept that the canonical gospel writers probably knew the works of Flavius Josephus but deny any significance to their knowledge.

The Flavians and the New Testament

The strongest historical fact that links the Flavian family (emperors Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian, 69-96 CE) to proto-Christianity is the Roman Catholic church’s traditional name of the pope at the time. The name “Pope Clement” (88-98) evokes the name of a member of the Flavian family, Titus Flavius Clemens. Clemens and his wife, Flavia Domitilla, were known Judean sympathizers. The catacombs that Flavia gave to her congregation initially were decorated with only Old Testament imagery; in the 2nd century Christian imagery began to appear, showing that they were used as the first Christian catacombs in Rome. Evidently, Clemens and Flavia were proto-Christians and it was their congregation that evolved into the home of the popes/orthodoxy. The name Pope Clement belonged (or was later retrojected onto) to one of their associates.

Flavia was a niece of Titus and Domitian. Given that status, the only role she could have had within a Roman congregation was as its patron. In my book, The Two Gospels of Mark: Performance and Text, I propose that Flavia sponsored the writing of the Gospel of Mark as a theatrical entertainment ‘donated’ to her congregation. Mark flattered Flavia when the Jesus actor declares that the anointing woman at Bethany will have “eternal fame.” (This extravagant praise was anomalous within the play, but appropriate for a patron. I infer that Flavia actually anointed the Jesus actor onstage.) Mark then rewrote his play as a narrative text. That text remained in the congregational library for at least four decades until Luke rewrote it.

Mark gambled and won when he made the effort to transform the play into a complex, Scripturally-based narrative worth reading on its own. I believe that congregation members from Flavia’s household ensured that this narrative, Mark’s secondary text, remained in the congregation’s library as evidence of Flavia’s benefaction. (If the sponsor of the play had been any other person, Mark’s text likely would not have survived. And Christianity would not have had its founding story!)

Flavia’s patronage is the extent of the “Flavian” influence on the New Testament: a single act that generated a skillfully written story that just happened to be in the right place at the right time to be preserved and to serve as the nucleus of the biography of a new savior-come-to-earth. Of the original versions of all the other New Testament texts, as far as I know, only the Letter of Clement and perhaps 1 Peter were written in Rome.

The pro-Roman slant of the New Testament

Proto-Christianity at the time of the Jewish War was a small diaspora sect of ethnic Judeans, mainly in Egypt (Philo et al) and Rome, and in the 2nd century in the area around Ephesus (later, the Lukan group). Proto-Christians were Hellenized. They used Scripture in Greek. They were not focused on the earthly Temple or on activities in Judea. Their concept of a messiah included a heavenly high priest serving in the true Temple in Heaven (Hebrews, the Gospel of Mark) and an initiator into secret knowledge that ‘saved’ the individual in the hereafter (the Gospel of John). Proto-Christians (with a Jesus figure) were a diaspora variation on Judean identity. It is not fair to call them “pro-Roman” because that requires us to see them as aberrant, and view the Pharisees and the militant messianists who fought in Jerusalem during the Jewish War and in the Kitos and Bar Kochba wars as practicing “normative” Judaism.

I want to point out that several of the most conspicuous, apparently pro-Roman elements in the gospel story are actually based on Mark’s characters or scenes that should be understood as occurring in the complex situation of performance, but were redefined by later pro-Gentile writers in a way that Mark did not intend. Here I discuss three.

The first is the centurion in Mark 15:39: “Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, ‘Truly this man was God’s Son!’” The centurion was a Roman soldier. The audience at Mark’s play had previously seen the Roman soldiers as comic “pigs” inhabited by demons, who drown themselves in the Sea of Galilee. There has been no scene that removed the Satanic demons from the soldiers. Therefore, the audience sees a centurion who is still under Satan’s control. The audience hears ‘Truly this man was God’s Son!’ Should the audience believe the (possessed) actor? Mark lets the audience savor the irony—is a statement true if it is spoken by a demon? This is a good theatrical effect that justifies itself. Later, readers of Mark’s narrative, and of other gospels, would not have identified the centurion as a possessed person, or thought of him as an unreliable speaker. Mark’s theatrical effect had become a prosaic fact that had to be explained realistically. The centurion was then transformed by Matthew into an exemplary man of faith (Mt 8:5-13). This characterization of the centurion was read back by gospel harmonizers into Mark’s story as well.

The second is the presence of a tax-collector among Jesus’s followers. In my book, I argue that in the play, the tax-collector was simply referred to in speech as one of the outcasts/sinners with whom Jesus dined. (Other outcasts were identifiable visually, such as prostitutes.) Mark was showing the audience that Jesus accepted outcasts/sinners as dining companions. Perhaps if Mark’s play had been presented in the provinces, the audience would have not accepted the presence of a tax collector. But in Rome—the destination of the collected taxes—it was acceptable. Mark was not saying that Jesus is pro-tax collector. Mark was contrasting Jesus’s behavior with the purity restrictions of the Pharisees. But understandably later exegetes extrapolated a welcome to tax collectors from Mark’s little incident. We see this extrapolation in an editor’s comment in Luke 7:29 “(And all the people who heard this, including the tax collectors, acknowledged the justice of God…)”

The third is the scene in the Temple in Mark 12:13-17, where Jesus tells the Pharisees, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” In real life, the audience members who were Judeans had to pay the Temple tax to the Roman state. Mark’s Jesus is saying to the audience, “Born Judeans have no choice; they must pay the Temple tax. But if you are a born-Gentile, you must make the decision yourself to identify as a Judean or not. I can’t decide for you.” This issue was of relevance to Flavia and Clemens, and other Gentile-born members of the congregation. Later, Roman policy changed to collect the tax only from people who practiced Judaism (i.e., Pharisaism). An exegete who read this passage in that later context would understand that Jesus was obviously not a Pharisee, and he did not prioritize “God’s things” the way that the Pharisees did. The exegete would therefore think that Mark had meant that Jesus was advocating payment of the emperor’s tax to the emperor—and therefore Mark’s Jesus was pro-Roman. But that is not what Mark was saying.

I want to add that the earliest full manuscripts of the New Testament that we have are from the fourth century, after the imperial legitimization of Christianity. We know that the canonical texts were edited and re-edited. We can assume that the great uncial codices were created with input from scholars in Rome. Roman Catholicism/orthodoxy was headquartered in Rome! Naturally these early texts had been shaped by political pressure. (Atwill, by the way, nowhere acknowledges that any of the received New Testament texts have been edited.) Many other Christian texts were created during the first few hundred years of Christianity, written by Gentiles and by Judean-identified writers. Some were pro-Roman, some not. The literary landscape of early Christianity was far more complicated than Atwill’s Flavian conspiracy would allow.

Flavius Josephus and the canonical gospel writers

In my book, I propose that in the Gospel of Mark, Joseph of Arimathea is a not-flattering portrayal of Flavius Josephus. (Why not flattering? The character handles a dead body; Josephus was a priest who would have been made impure by the body). I did not speculate on why Mark insulted Josephus. Recently, I realized that Mark’s congregation may have included the Judean princess Berenice, Titus’s former fiancée. Perhaps Josephus had told Titus not to marry her. That would explain the rift between Josephus and Mark. Entirely speculative, but possible.

I am sure that the educated members of Mark’s congregation in the 90s would have read Josephus’s The Jewish War. (And possibly other accounts of the War.) Mark would have read it, if only to understand the background of the ascent of the Flavians to power. The question here is, did Mark use The Jewish War when writing his gospel, and if so, how?

I think it is possible that Mark used the trial of Jesus ben-Ananias as a model for the Passion story. But not the only model. The overall story of the Passion is standard for tragedy: the arrest and trial of a nonconforming individual by the state.

It is necessary to point out that Mark had to use some sequence for the scenes in the play. And so did his editors. It is possible that in some cases the original sequence of scenes in the Gospel of Mark was parallel to scenes in The Jewish War. This may have been deliberate or coincidental. We cannot reconstruct Mark’s original sequence of scenes from underneath the extensive editing. Some scenes have been moved; some scenes are missing. In the absence of Mark’s original sequence, I cannot speculate on his motive for possibly imitating a sequence of scenes in Josephus’s work.

It’s necessary to remember that common sources can produce common effects. Josephus and the synoptic gospel writers had read some of the same texts. The stylistic similarity in, for example, the description of a battle scene in Josephus and in a gospel could have come from their common source in the Bible. Or from both authors having been educated in the appropriate literary way to portray a certain kind of scene.

In short, there is no reason to grant any significance to correspondences between the canonical gospels and the works of Flavius Josephus. I add that it is fair to assume that both the writers and the later editors of the four canonical gospels knew Josephus’s works; it would not be surprising if sometimes editors (who thought they were telling true history about Jesus of Nazareth) made ‘adjustments’ to make the stories more historically valid. We see such an adjustment, for example, in the editorial additions that reference events of the Jewish War in the Olivet Discourse in the Gospel of Mark. (I argue in the book that Jesus’s original speech did not reference events of the Jewish War.)

Summary

Flavia Domitilla and Titus Flavius Clemens, members of the Flavian family, were present at the creation of the Gospel of Mark, and contributed to the long-term survival of the Gospel of Mark and Mark’s Roman congregation. But there was no Flavian conspiracy to create Christianity. The apparent pro-Roman bias of the canonical gospels in part derives from the explanation of Mark’s theatrical effects as prosaic elements in a biography of Jesus of Nazareth. Editing of the great uncial codices prior to their publication also was a factor that created a pro-Roman slant. Yes, it is very likely that the canonical gospel writers knew the works of Flavius Josephus. And maybe they or their editors ‘adjusted’ history (once the gospels were treated as true history) in small ways to conform to Josephus’s work. But that is the extent of the significance of Josephus’s work for the creators of the New Testament.

I cannot recommend Caesar’s Messiah for any reason, even for background on proto-Christianity. If the reader dissents from Atwill’s grand conspiracy theory (‘the Flavians wrote the New Testament as an elaborate joke or intelligence test’) the reader will not be left with a solid introduction to important early Christian texts, or with an understanding of how the canonical gospels developed independently and sequentially. At most, the reader will have a better acquaintance with Josephus’s The Jewish War. But if you want to read that less-than-thrilling work, read it on its own, preferably accompanied with Steve Mason’s magisterial history, A History of the Jewish War, A.D. 66-74. That book, I can heartily recommend.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *